When Do Kids Learn Colors and How Should Parents Teach Them?

Kids foot with splattered paint colors and brushes and paint covered paper

Most adults take a vast amount of their typical daily experiences for granted. For example, how often do you stop to really consider how much is going on when you admire a beautiful sunset? A complex swath of colors evokes great memories, strong emotion and even a sense of wonder. We note the feelings but not the wide variety of mental processes associated with them. But all of that changes when people have children.

Watching a baby grow into his or her childhood gives people a chance to see how humans learn to relate to the world. Parents have a chance to see how that process of appreciating color truly begins. And parents naturally begin to wonder how they’ll teach their children about everything they hold important.

The Best Age to Learn Things Is Itself an Age Old Debate

Kid surrounded by books scratching his head trying to learn how to read

Most people would agree that parenting is incredibly difficult. New parents will usually discover fairly quickly that nobody is ever fully prepared for the task. It’s not just that taking care of a child puts extra demands on people. The larger issue is that there really isn’t a firmly agreed upon way to do much of anything related to raising a child.

There’s nothing in the world as precious, important and vulnerable as one’s family. Most parents are also quite scared of making one big mistake that will ruin this precious being’s life. This even goes as far as wondering about when it’s time for kids to learn about colors.

Will a child discover an artistic flair if he or she starts learning about colors earlier than her peers? In contrast, could starting too early cause a child to become frustrated with art? Parents always wonder if they’re setting their child up for failure or success with any developmental milestone.

A Developing Mind Begins to Find Patterns

Portrait of boy wearing a suit and standing near a chalkboard with a colorful brain illustrating a kids development

One of the most important parts of parenting comes from recognizing patterns in a child’s development. Amusingly enough, this mirrors what’s going on with a child’s mind as well. Both parent and child are searching for patterns in the other’s behavior. Babies look at their parents and try to learn cause and effect. A child wonders what will make mom smile or dad bring over a favorite toy. Mom and dad wonder how to show the child that those actions are ways of communicating. Parents and children are learning about each other and the world at the same time.

It’s true that this happens in different ways for every combination of parent and child. Parents teach differently and children have just as much variety in how they learn. However, one can make some general assumptions about a child’s development based on certain milestones.

Children typically start to grasp the nature of language at about eighteen months. An emphasis should be put on the word start. People often forget just how complex language is. A dog, for example, can understand some words. But a dog isn’t going to understand grammar and syntax. When children are around eighteen months they’re working on a linguistic foundation laid down with a similar understanding. At this age children will typically start to work with the most important nouns in their life. They’ll slowly build upon this foundation to reach a greater understanding of language.

A focus on language might seem to run parallel to learning about color. Most people will assume the topics are related but not too heavily tied together. It’s a common assumption which often only falls apart when examined under specific conditions. However, researchers who’ve done so have managed to find out some intriguing information regarding the ways children learn about both language and color. The results surprised almost everyone. And the people most surprised about a child’s ability to recognize color were often his or her parents.

How a Child Finds Meaning in an Often Confusing World

A preschooler is learning about colors at home using colored numbers

Imagine a scene where scientists sat watch over a mother and child. The mother sat with her eyes covered to keep her from seeing what her child was doing. It might sound like a scene from a psychological thriller. But in reality it was an actual event from a study of young children’s ability to recognize colors.

Parents would often bring their children in with absolute confidence that they had a solid grasp of color. But as the children began to falter during the tests their parent’s naturally felt the urge to help. All of the previously discussed worries can come out when a child seems to be failing at something which should be a simple task. However, we’ve also hit on the fact that color recognition isn’t as simple as it might appear.

Learning about color isn’t just a matter of linking a noun to a word. Colors are a far more abstract thing. Consider just how subtle the differences are between, say, a dark pink and a light red. Now consider how you’d actually describe that in the type of simple language a young child uses. It’s easy to see how that might be frustrating. And likewise why parents are so eager to rush to their child’s aid when they seem to be struggling.

As the researchers tested the children their parents were often desperate to step in and help. This is a natural response to how parents teach children a wide variety of skills. Children struggle with something, parents observe that issue, and the two work together. However, color brings with it some interesting complications. And it’s in examining what goes wrong with a child’s learning process that we gain insight on a better way to teach children about color.

The Importance of Syntax and Word Order

Kid in red clothes standing against wall changing colored word impossible to possible by covering the first two letters with his hands

Researchers found that children often didn’t have nearly as firm a grasp on color as their parents assumed. This is part of the reason why parents had to be shielded from children during the tests. Parents often coach their children as a way to teach them. It might not even be a conscious decision. A parent can quickly give some verbal, or even non-verbal, cues and quickly forget about it. Things change under more clinical supervision. The researchers found that a large percentage of the children studied would fail color tests when devoid of guidance or contextual clues.

The reason the children failed was linked to the nature of how we process language. It’s important to remember the earlier focus on nouns. Children start to learn about the world in a simple object based manner. A child learns to link a particular word to a singular object. But color is a far more subtle thing which is essentially grafted on to a subject. Consider a child told to pick a green apple from a selection of items. He’s confronted by two important points. The first point is the color red. It’s a complex and abstract concept. Then the noun, apple, is affixed as a modifier. This runs contrary to how children learn language. They’re not approaching the world with a complex subjective perspective at the front. Instead they’re looking first at simple nouns and then expanding that if needed.

A Different Way to Teach Children About Color

Smiling boy holds a big green apple

Reconsider the idea of a green apple. The first part a child hears is green. He might have a rough idea of what green is and he’ll begin considering it in the context of his environment. He might see a green Christmas tree in the corner. There may be some green building blocks sticking out of a toy box. His dad might even have a green sweater on. And then, finally, the room will contain a bowl of green and red apples. The child probably finds his dad and the Christmas tree far more exciting than apples. He’ll therefore have a good chance of fixating on one of these items. Or he may simply become confused about the concept of a green apple amidst all the other options.

The researchers found that the word order changed how well a child would learn to differentiate colors. Instead of asking for a green apple a parent might instead ask for the apple which is green. The grammar and syntax might cause some people to wince. However, it’s important to remember that people need to approach children on their own level. One doesn’t insist that a toddler speak in complex sentences. Instead a parent will slowly ease a child into proper grammar over time. Likewise, when teaching colors it’s important to actually focus on the color. One wouldn’t try to teach math and spelling in the same lesson. There’s no need to insist that lessons about color be tied in with grammar.

Keep Things Simple and Work Up From There

Girl learning colors with wooden rainbow toy pyramid and counter abacus

All of these points might seem intimidating at first. However, the underlying rule is to simply recognize that children are operating at a very simple level as they try to work out language. Kids start to really work on language at around eighteen months. This is a good time to start working on colors as well. However, keep in mind that colors should be approached as something added on to nouns they already understand.

If a child wants a drink then keep in mind that she’s not looking for her favorite red cup. She’s instead looking for her favorite cup. That cup is red. But she needs to first understand the object’s name and then start to work on attaching descriptors to it. They’ll gain a better understanding of colors by seeing how it works with their favorite things in life. Do they have a favorite toy? If so don’t be surprised if their favorite color winds up being associated with it in some way. This is because children are usually learning color from an association with other things. Children first pick up language in relation to the things which are most important to them. Likewise, they usually start to learn about colors in the context of those important things.

Parents should try to keep in mind that children are continually engaged in pattern matching. But kids need to anchor their attention onto solidly understood concepts before finding patterns within the chaos of the world around them. Learning should involve a slow process of increasing complexity. One wouldn’t try to teach multiplication before addition. Likewise, one shouldn’t expect children to pick up color independently of their understanding of the objects around them.

A child will first learn to call his favorite brown teddy bear by a single descriptor like bear. He’ll later learn to understand that his bear is a toy, small, brown and many other things. Parents simply need to remember that it takes a while for children to really differentiate more complex associations from the objects in their lives.